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Q&A: China's waste ban debate is 'misinformed' and 'one-dimensional'

Adam Minter says limits on foreign 'trash' have created a multimillion tonne shortfall in raw materials

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What a waste: Police in Guangdong have seized thousands of tonnes of illegally imported materials this year. (Image: Yuan Guohong/Xinhua/Alamy)

China faces a shortfall of millions of tonnes of raw materials after placing restrictions on foreign waste imports at the start of this year.

But rather than drown in rubbish rejected by China’s port authorities, neighbouring countries in the region – such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia – could in fact be benefiting from the increased availability of cheap recyclable materials.

At first glance, China’s decision to restrict imports of 26 types of foreign plastic and paper seemed like a boon for the environment, when announced at a World Trade Forum in July 2016.

Finally, Western countries would be forced to stop “dumping” on China, said the press, and take responsibility for their own rubbish. Optimists predicted an overhaul of waste disposal systems. In the United States and Europe companies promised to “design” waste out of their supply chains.

But in reality the big waste exporters were ill-equipped to respond to the change. Rubbish containers were rerouted to poorer neighbouring countries that lack the infrastructure to process it, while Chinese manufacturers have relocated. So, eight months after the restrictions came into force what has been the effect?

Adam Minter is an American journalist and author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. He was based in China for over a decade, reporting on recycling for Bloomberg, before moving to Malaysia. He argues that China has not been turning away useless junk but instead valuable scrap, which supplies the recycling and manufacturing sectors that underpin the country’s economy. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Charlotte Middlehurst: You argue that China’s ban on foreign waste might not be good news for the environment. How so? 

Adam Minter: The new restrictions, which are effectively bans, are spoken of in a zero-sum sense. Banning an import of recyclables is not something that occurs in a vacuum. If you’re not using recyclable raw materials (and that’s what China has banned) you force companies to use virgin materials. It requires far less energy to produce an equal volume of recycled material than a virgin one.

In aluminium, you’re talking about a 90% energy input saving. In 2020 we’re likely going to see China’s ban hit aluminium scrap as well, so not only are you digging a hole in the ground in Tibet to get that material out, you’re also consuming and producing more carbon. The carbon emissions for plastics and paper aren’t as significant as they are for aluminium because aluminium is so energy intensive. But they’re still significant.

There’s been a huge uptick in Chinese interest in virgin plastics, and liquefied natural gas produced in Houston, Texas, the petrol chemical capital of the US. Why? Because [Chinese companies] can’t get the imported recyclables in stock.

I was in Chengdu in December at a paper recycling conference where a trade association candidly said that they’re facing a shortfall of at least 5 million metric tonnes in raw materials.

If they can’t get any recyclables then they’re going to get it elsewhere, and that could be from trees, or from straw, which is very environmentally destructive.

The overall dialogue around this has been really misinformed and one-dimensional. Recycling in China has never been about dumping. Someone pays for every scrap of recycling that gets imported into China. I’ve been covering this since 2002 and I’m yet to meet someone who pays for a pile of garbage.

Charlotte: Turning to virgin raw materials seems to clash with China’s efforts to move towards a sustainable and energy efficiency economy. So, was this foreseen and is this a price worth paying to advance a longer-term ambition to improve domestic waste processing?

Adam:
Since the mid-2000s China’s government has tended to favour the virgin materials industry more than the recycling industry, and for an obvious reason. The virgin materials industry and the big mining and steel companies are state-owned entities, and the recycling industry is largely private. So, this is really a continuation of that policy.

Whenever the government wants to crack down on steel production, they do so on the private mills in smaller cities in China that are recycling steel, and that’s been a long-term problem. Under Xi Jinping, the state-owned enterprises are increasingly favoured.

Second, I think there’s nationalist sentiment behind this. Rhetoric surrounding foreigners 'dumping' waste really can inflame passions.  

The third issue at stake is that China really does want to see its cities start recycling. It wants to spur a domestic recycling industry, which isn’t so easy when you’re competing again foreign imports.

The Chinese government will tell you that foreign imports are seriously contaminated. That’s an exaggeration. Actually at this point in 2018 China’s imports have never been cleaner, and that’s partly due to crackdowns leading back to 2012.

Foreign recycling is immaculate compared to what is being generated in Chinese cities.

Charlotte: Since the restrictions came into force (on January 1, 2018) it has been reported that Southeast Asia has been picking up the slack and is overwhelmed with waste. But you’ve written that the ban is good news for these economies. Why?

Adam:
Countries in Southeast Asia have labour and regulatory resources and a desire to grow economically. If you’re suddenly dumping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of raw materials into a country, inevitably you’re going to see economies grow up around that.

Some of that is happening right now in Malaysia. We’ve seen a huge percentage of southern China non-ferrous metal recycling relocate in areas outside of Kuala Lumpur and Johor in southern Malaysia.

In the mid-term, 2-5 years, you’re going to see some other capacities grow up in these developed regions that were exporting before. There was an announcement of a half-billion dollar paper mill in Wisconsin designed to take the kind of paper that was being exported to China. The US has only had small capacities for mixed paper because it was so cheap to ship paper to China, the prices were good. Well, now that market is gone. So that’ll be really good for Wisconsin and in a sense it’ll be China’s loss.

Charlotte: There’s been a lot of emphasis on single use plastics like straws and plastic bags. But manufacturers are saying banning the bags won’t fix the problem and could lead to more pollution. What’s the solution?

Adam:
If the goal is to prevent the accumulation of ocean plastics – and we’ve all seen the videos of that turtle – then banning single use plastics in developed countries will make absolutely no difference. The standard Jenna Jambeck study has some really interesting data points on the sources of ocean plastic.

In the study they found that eight Asian countries, including China, account for 63% of ocean plastics. Whereas in the US, where we get all this attention, it’s just 2%. A bag in the United States is not going to make a bit of difference.

The much better solution to these problems is to improve trash collection by actually collecting the trash. So many coastal countries just don’t have trash collection. Step two is improving the landfill, incinerators and the recycling process. I think banning items is just a distraction and it’s not realistic in fast-growing economies where you have fast-growing plastic waste, and where they want their chance to consume.

Charlotte: Taxing plastics is the other approach. In the UK a 5p tax on plastic bags has led to a 90% fall in consumer usage. Should consumers pay for the luxury of a disposable lifestyle?

Adam:
I don’t think it works especially well in developing countries. For example, in Indonesia, there’s been talk for several years of a single use plastic tax and taxes on bottles. But if you’re an average consumer it’s a terrible idea because most Indonesians, well over 50%, don’t have access to clean water in their homes. They’re highly dependent on bottled water.

Whether people like to hear it or not, single use plastics improve lives in developing nations, and until those developing nations are developed nations, I think we’d all be better served by giving them better waste management than telling them ‘no, you can’t have it’.

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